The Draft Horse Whisperer
“All right, let’s find out if you have any power,” Hutton says, and then shouts the horses forward. They pull the pine, maybe 16 inches in diameter, easily to the middle of the clearing. A veteran team their size could comfortably haul a load equal to their own weight, Hutton says, but Ice and Twiggy are far from seasoned. So he builds his horses up, going after slightly bigger logs with each new load.
Twiggy, though, is hoppy. At times she jerks forward ahead of Ice, pulling her partner with her. Other times, she stops and lets Ice do the work. To help her, Hutton mixes stern directives with encouragement. He pats her gently after each completed load and fires his frustration at her when the logs barely budge. “Twiggy!” he booms at one point. “I’ve got news for you: Ted’s moved bigger logs than this and you’re a bigger horse than he is.” On it goes for the next several hours, Hutton prodding and pushing his animals like a coach at practice.
“My parents keep asking me when I’m going to get a real job,” Meghan says later with a laugh. “John and I aren’t sure what that’s supposed to mean.”
As a boy growing up in Stratham, New Hampshire, there was never any doubt what John Hutton would do with his life. Genetic disposition and family legacy ensured that. Hutton men had worked the land for several generations; it was the kind of employment that allowed them to get by, but not much else. A year and a half before Hutton’s birth, his father succumbed to financial pressures and sold off his 75-head dairy farm, settling his family on a nearby one-and-a-half-acre plot. He started over as a milk inspector, work that put him on the road and let his young boy travel with him as he visited dairy farms across New Hampshire and Maine.
Hutton adored the stories his father told him about the old farm. He loved even more the retired farmers and loggers his father knew. These men, who had toiled in the fields and woods with oxen and draft horses, became his heroes. Theirs had been a world molded by the big logging camps that had once dominated the northern landscape, felling some of the final giants of the New England forest with axes and crosscut saws. For Hutton they represented the last vestiges of a way of life that had largely vanished, replaced by machinery, and he hung on their every word. “I was pretty aware when I was young that I was around the last generation of these guys,” Hutton says. “I was just a sponge.”
By the time Hutton landed at the University of New Hampshire in the mid-1970s, he was working in the woods with his own animals–a pair of oxen, Butch and Buck, whom he used to collect cordwood for customers. Later, he started teaming horses, and it wasn’t unusual to find him logging with a pair of Belgians in the depths of winter in some northern forest. In 2005, after years of haying and hauling cows to market for other farmers, Hutton moved out of Stratham to own and operate his own farm, in nearby Lee.
Coppal House Farm is a property Hutton and his wife, Carol, a middle-school science teacher, have poured the last several years of their lives into fixing up. They restored old fields–barns, too–and moved into a new farmhouse in 2011. With the loss of his father’s farm hanging over him, Hutton has maintained an almost obsessive drive to stay diversified. He grows a range of vegetables for his farm stand and local farmers’ markets, and just this past year has started growing canola to press into oil. He’s also opened his property to the public. Each fall families pour into his place to weave through a giant corn maze, or hop on a wagon pulled by his three horses. In winter he hitches his horses up to a big sleigh for a four-mile ride through woods and snow.
Those horses, in fact, form the center of Hutton’s farm. It’s easy to dismiss his use of them as something for show, a marketing gimmick that makes for a pretty picture. But Hutton is nothing if not practical. He hates inefficiency, and the truth is, for a farm this size and the kind of work Hutton does, the horses offer an advantage.
“We’re a mixed-power farm,” Hutton says. “We have no illusions about the horses or the tractor. If the horses make more sense, I throw a harness. If a tractor makes more sense, I turn a key. I have no problem with that. None. Nada. But being able to combine the best of both, you use this where it’s most efficient. And it works.”
Each spring, Hutton gets an early start on his plowing because he doesn’t have to wait for the ground to completely dry before it can support heavy machinery. And in the woods, the horses let Hutton work without scarring up the land. “When I’m done, you wouldn’t even know I was there,” he says. “The environmental impact is zip. All we need is a space that’s as wide as a kitchen table. With a skidder, you’re spending more than $100,000, and you need an eight-foot-wide road.”